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TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO DREAM


by Palomine
Dip49@aol.com


Disclaimer: This story contains mild violence. If you are offended by this please read another story

PROLOGUE

"This is so nice, " Gabrielle murmured . She knelt closer to the fire and felt the heat of the flames as they bathed her face in warmth. It wasn't often she was alone like this, to sit filled with her own thoughts and to savor the privacy of the moment. An owl hooted somewhere and Argo snorted in reply. It was a beautiful night, cool but with the promise of springtime long overdue.

To the sounds of the forest was soon added the scratching of Gabrielle's pen as she wrote on the parchment laid out on the ground. She often composed her verses as she and Xena made their way from one village to another, trying out bits of tales and turns of phrase on the warrior. But sometimes the Muse would come upon her at an inopportune time. Like tonight when she had reached for pen and ink long after the stars had risen in the sky. Usually she would wrap herself in her bedroll and fall asleep immediately, lulled by the scraping sounds as Xena sharpened her sword or knife. When first they began their travels together, Xena had always been awake when she fell asleep and somehow, she was always up and about when Gabrielle awoke. It had seemed like the dark-haired woman never slept at all. Xena had been like a god to her then and to think that she would need the basic requirements of mortals had seemed almost blasphemy. She glanced over at the blanketed sleeper on the other side of the fire and smiled. She'd learned much about Xena since those first early days. And even more about herself.

Quickly the tale unfolded as the images in Gabrielle's brain tumbled through her imagination to land with finality on the parchment before her. The best tales always came like this, in a rush of fact and fancy. Some adventure they had shared would gestate in her mind and the bones of the story would harden into form. Then the adornment that was Gabrielle's gift would come into play. Not just the facts, but when to tell them. Not just the details, but with color and precision so that those who heard the words could conjure up the scene just as she wanted them to. How to build up the tension and excitement so that the hearing of the tale would be the next best thing to seeing and living it.

There was a muffled sound off to her right and almost without thought she dropped her pen and gripped her staff in one swift motion. She whirled, half expecting danger but there was no one in sight. She froze for a moment, her tale forgotten as she listened intently. There was a sharp intake of breath and a soft murmur, almost a moan, and for a second Gabrielle thought she herself had made the noise. Then there was the rustle of a bedroll and she realized that it was Xena who slept fitfully this night.

How often it happened she had no way of knowing, but lately when she had been writing while Xena slept, she had kept silent watch over her companion. It had been a different matter when she had shared a room with her little sister Lilla back in Poteideia. Then it had seemed like sleep washed over the younger girl's face, making her look childlike and vulnerable. Not so with Xena. As with everything about the warrior, even her sleep was marked by power, mystery and an undercurrent of violence. During the day Xena was poised and unflappable, tightly controlled in movement and speech. But when sleep should have given her rest and comfort, sometimes it seemed to unleash the darkness in her soul, so closely held back by day.

Gabrielle sat a few feet from Xena and waited. Sometimes Xena would merely turn her head and mutter commands to warriors who were no longer among the living. The language of the camp fell easily from her lips and Gabrielle's vocabulary had increased considerably with profanities Xena would not have uttered anywhere within earshot of her younger companion had she been awake.

Other nights had not been so amusing, as Xena had fought battles with past foes, the anger and threats that broke through her slumber oddly incongruous with the peaceful campsite that marked the night's resting place. Once Gabrielle had instinctively reached out to comfort and calm her and, in her frenzied dream, Xena had grasped her arm with a strength and ferocity that threatened to break bone.

But most frightening of all were the times when Gabrielle had been startled by the unexpected and unnerving sound of Xena crying out in the night. A lament for a lost comrade or lover, perhaps. Maybe a cry of pain for a wound long since healed but still aching in memory. More likely than not, it had been the visions of carnage and destruction that time and guilt had brought into focus-the cries of the dying, the smell of smoke and blood, the deeds that had marked her as the Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations. The first time she had witnessed her friend's torment Gabrielle had lain in the shadows, uncertain of what to do, afraid to approach her, when suddenly Xena had awakened. She had sat bolt upright, breathing in short painful gasps, the sweat glistening on her face, her body trembling uncontrollably. Before Gabrielle could rise to offer comfort, Xena had stumbled to the river's edge and had splashed cold water on her face. Through an almost visible act of will she had reined in the fear and horror that had awakened her and silently returned to her bedroll. Gabrielle had kept quiet, torn by compassion, yet aware that Xena would be angry and upset to have a witness to her fears.

Since then Gabrielle had kept neither her silence nor her distance. As Xena's movements became more agitated, Gabrielle sat beside her on the ground and began to recount the tale she had just scratched out on the parchment, keeping her voice low, steady and soft. When she would tell the tale later at inns and taverns on their journey, there would be a far different presentation, with inflections of voice and manner to build dramatic effect. But now her voice was gentle and calming, the sound of it like a warm and heavy blanket that muffled the stirrings of Xena's nightmares until she slept peacefully once again.

That was her gift ...the lullaby of words that only a bard could offer.

SECTION 1

"Did you get to finish your verse last night?" Xena and Gabrielle were walking side by side and there had been a long companionable silence for some time. Gabrielle was surprised. It wasn't like Xena to initiate a conversation, let alone a conversation about stories and storytelling.

"Most of it. I got off to a pretty good start but I guess I was just too tired to finish." Gabrielle looked sideways at the taller woman, trying to read something in the immobile features and in those sometimes expressive and sometimes impenetrable blue eyes. There was no sign there today of evasion or impatience and Gabrielle decided that Xena was unaware of her anxious dreams of the night before.

"Well, I'd like to hear it when you're ready."

Gabrielle smiled. You already have, she thought to herself and enjoyed the idea that for once she knew something Xena didn't. Argo snorted behind them and Gabrielle was reminded that her secret was already shared by another.

But nonetheless, Gabrielle was uneasy. Although Xena's bearing was as erect as ever, her face calm in the morning light, Gabrielle could tell she was troubled. The recent nightmares had cost her and although no one else would have detected it, Gabrielle could tell by the set of her shoulders and in the depths of her blue eyes that Xena was tired. Not just the simple fatigue of a hard day's ride or the aftermath of a scuffle with bandits, Xena's weariness lay in the very depths of her soul and even Gabrielle could not venture there.

Her mind raced, searching for some pleasurable distraction. "Why don't you take Argo for a run?" she suggested. As if in agreement, the horse behind them whinnied and tossed her head.

"Right now?" Xena was about to argue the point when Argo nudged Xena's shoulder with her nose and pushed her forward. Xena laughed, turning to rub the horse's neck affectionately. For one brief moment, her features relaxed in a smile and Gabrielle glimpsed the woman who lived hidden in the armor and leathers of the warrior, the woman whose friendship she prized.

"Why not? It's time we stopped for a rest. I'll get some food ready and you two can check out the road ahead." Gabrielle started pulling the packs from behind the saddle and waved them off, content that she had managed to please them both so easily.

But her satisfaction was short lived as she awaited their return. The minutes passed, too many for a short run on a straight path, when Gabrielle spotted the two in the distance, walking slowly side by side. When she approached them, she saw that Argo had a decided limp and that Xena's right cheek was scraped and bloodied and her shoulder marked by a reddish bruise that would be purple by evening.

"What happened? Are you all right? "

"I'm fine. Argo lost a shoe and I was thrown, that's all."

Gabrielle was stunned for a moment. The very idea of Xena tumbling from Argo's back was inconceivable. They were a unit, as if welded together, and in all their adventures, Xena was at her most confident, her most impressive, when astride her golden horse. She watched as Xena removed her healing pouch from the saddlebag. There was a gash on Argo's foreleg and Xena set to work cleansing the wound, stitching the tear, all the while murmuring to the mare as a mother would to a hurt child.

When she was finished, Xena sat by Gabrielle, her features drawn and her expression somber. Gabrielle began, almost hesitantly, "You know, Xena, I think all three of us could use a rest. We can't be far from the next town. Why don't we stop at an inn for a day or so? It would give Argo a chance to heal." Xena nodded in agreement and Gabrielle thought ...and maybe you too, my friend.

They arrived by nightfall and as Xena led Argo to the stable, Gabrielle entered a nearby inn. It seemed clean and orderly, although many of the furnishings were in need of repair. Several of the chairs and tables had been patched and when Gabrielle had entered, the door had creaked mournfully. That was a good sign, thought the bard. Maybe it won't cost much.

The innkeeper was a young woman who smiled broadly as Gabrielle approached. A small child clung to her leg, brown eyes wide with curiosity. Gabrielle returned the little girl's gaze with a cheerful grin and waggled her fingertips in greeting.

"Would you like a room?" The woman noted the Amazon garb and the well worn staff carried by this prospective lodger and decided to suspend her usual refusal to rent a night's lodging to attractive young women traveling alone. Moreover, the inn wasn't doing well and she needed every dinar she could get.

"Yes, please. My friend will be joining me. One night, probably two."

"That'll be twenty dinars a night." The woman paused as she saw the look of concern on Gabrielle's face. "That includes meals. My brother-in law is a wonderful cook," she added, hopefully.

Gabrielle hesitated. It was a fair price but she had another plan. "Maybe we can work something out here. What if I could provide some entertainment for the supper crowd to drum up a little business? My name is Gabrielle the Bard, maybe you've heard of me?"

The innkeeper stared at her and shook her head regretfully. "My name's Linnea. I'm sorry. We don't get many storytellers passing this way."

"All the better. Folks are probably dying for a good story. We'll pay you for one night, let me tell my tales and if we fill up the place, the second night's for free."

Linnea smiled and nodded. The idea of a roomful of customers eating and drinking while they listened to the bard seemed too good to pass up. "All right, it's a deal. Do you want to go up to your room now and settle in before supper? I can send your friend up."

"All right. You can't miss her... big, tall, dark hair, blue eyes...dressed in warrior's garb. Name's Xena."

There was an almost strangled shout from the back room and a young man emerged, a look of terror playing across his features. He gestured frantically to Linnea to join him, all the while shaking his head in determined refusal, waving a wooden ladle for emphasis. The two began to argue and it was clear that as anxious as he was to deny Xena lodging, Linnea was adamant to accept Gabrielle's terms. So heated was their discussion that neither noticed when another figure entered the inn door, almost silently, to stand beside Gabrielle.

Gabrielle turned to speak but was struck silent by Xena's demeanor. When others had greeted her with animosity and insults, Xena had been impassive, neither angered nor chagrined by the response to her reputation. This time her eyes narrowed and her body stiffened with what Gabrielle recognized as cold rage only barely contained. Her gaze was fixed upon the young man as she gripped Gabrielle's arm and cocked her head toward the door.

"Please don't go." It seemed that Linnea had prevailed as the young man drew back to the kitchen. "Please forgive my brother-in-law's rudeness. I'd really like to hear your stories and your friend is welcome here. If she'll stay..." She looked beseechingly at the pair.

Xena turned and without a word to either woman, she left the inn, slamming the door behind her. Gabrielle and Linnea looked at one another with embarrassment, stunned at the unexpected turn of events.

"I'm sorry," began Gabrielle. "It's happened before. Did he lose someone to Xena's army?" She suddenly became sorely aware of the absence of Linnea's husband.

"No," the other woman answered. She added in a lowered tone, "Nikkos was in Xena's army. Years ago."

"Well, she's not like that anymore. She's changed. Whatever happened between them, I'm sure Xena...

Linnea answered softly, "It wasn't Xena."

"Then I don't understand. Something must have happened."

Linnea turned away and seemed unwilling to speak further. Then as if she had come to a decision, she faced Gabrielle and said bleakly, "The Gauntlet."

SECTION 2

The word hung in the air like the crack of a whip and Gabrielle shuddered as her confusion was replaced by revulsion and a stark comprehension of Xena's response. Linnea herded the child behind the counter and sat wearily at one of the tables. Gabrielle joined her, almost reluctant to hear more but needing to. "My husband was the elder son and when he inherited the inn, Nikkos ran off and ended up in Xena's army. He wanted to be a warrior, to have something to brag about when he came home." She laughed bitterly. "Xena knew better than he did. She made him a cook. But when Darphus took over, Nikkos stood in line with all the others."

Gabrielle hugged her elbows to her body, suddenly cold. Salmoneus had been there and witnessed it all, had told her of it - how they had stripped Xena of her armor to walk the Gauntlet, to pass between the rows of jeering men with upraised clubs. With a salesman's fluency, he had imprinted the images in her mind. Facing certain death, Xena had been imperial, scornful. There were those with clubs who showed more fear than she and as the blows rained down, she'd whirled and spun, fists flying.

But the clubs had done their damage. Near the end of the line, she lay broken on the ground, able to move only by curling her fingers in the dirt and pulling her body, inching her way to the end of the Gauntlet. When the drumbeat was stilled, she lay motionless as had all others forced through the alleyway of death.

But then, like the Phoenix, she had risen, slowly and purposefully. Gabrielle could only imagine the agony that had rent her body as she forced herself to stand erect, shoulders back, a true warrior princess as all the legends said.

And from that moment on, Darphus was a dead man walking.

Her face must have revealed her emotions for Linnea reached forward across the table and touched Gabrielle's hand. "I'm sorry," she said softly.

Gabrielle could only murmur, "I'll be back" and left the inn in search of Xena. There was little doubt of where to go, where Xena would seek comfort, and Gabrielle headed straight for the stable. She paused at the doorway as her eyes became accustomed to the darkened interior and searched until she spotted Xena brushing Argo in a stall at the back. For a moment she watched in silence, filled with compassion for this dark, complex woman. "Are you okay?"

"Fine." Xena's tone was curt. Gabrielle watched as the brush skimmed the horse's side with sure and powerful strokes. At least Argo would reap some benefit from Xena's wrath.

Gabrielle stood in silence, unsure of how to proceed. It would be foolhardy to express her concern, even more risky to ask questions. Xena was not given to confidences even when in a good mood. But the day had started out badly, had continued its downward spiral, and Gabrielle would not, could not, turn away from her without some gesture of sympathy.

"Have some supper with me. It's hours since you've eaten."

"I'm not hungry. You go on ahead." Xena continued to groom Argo, her eyes riveted on the mare.

Gabrielle tried to keep the tension out of her voice. "Well, I've got us a room. Just come on over when you're ready."

"I'm worried about Argo. I'm staying here tonight." Xena's voice was a low rumble, like far off thunder.

"No, you're not." The words were spoken before Gabrielle could retrieve them.

Xena turned her head slowly, her eyes the palest blue, like the ice that covers a winter pond, hiding the pull of the deadly water beneath. "Gabrielle, leave me alone. This has nothing to do with you."

"Yes, it does. You're worried about Argo? Well, I'm worried about you. You haven't had a good night's sleep in weeks. You never would have fallen from Argo if you were fine. By the looks of that shoulder, I'd bet my last dinar that you dislocated it when you fell and then rammed some poor unsuspecting rock with your body to force it back into place. I'm also willing to bet that it hurts like Hades or you wouldn't be brushing Argo with your left hand. Now if you're so mad at that man that you'd rather sleep on straw in a stable than on a soft bed in a clean room, well, go ahead. But I fail to see how you're going to get back at him that way. Anyhow, the sight of you scared him so badly that he took off and probably hasn't stopped running yet." She took a deep breath, bracing herself for the onslaught of Xena's redirected wrath.

Xena's eyes were fixed on her and moments of uncomfortable silence passed while Gabrielle regretted every word she had spoken. She'd come to offer comfort and had ended up losing her temper, had meant to provide solace and had given sarcasm instead. Now she'd pay the price.

Xena shook her head and the slightest of smiles flashed across her face. In a tone of injured dignity she said, "It wasn't a rock. It was a tree."

"I stand corrected. Besides, I already paid for the room and the food comes with it." She patted Argo's side and cast a sidelong glance at Xena. "After eating my cooking for so long, it might be a nice change. I hear the cook used to work for a warrior princess who never settled for second best."

Gabrielle watched as Xena picked at the food on the heaping platter before them. Bad enough she isn't sleeping, now she isn't eating either, she thought. The room was empty but for the two of them and Linnea. Gabrielle liked to eat early when she planned to tell her tales, leaving her more time to entertain, and hopefully, to count her dinars. Word had already started to spread throughout the backwater town that there would be something special at Linnea's that night and she hoped that the day would end better than it had begun.

"I'm sorry for the commotion before." Linnea sat down across from Xena. "I wanted to talk to you before everyone started coming in. Please stay as long as you like, no charge."

Xena's rage had dissipated but her expression was not one to encourage dinner conversation. Nevertheless, Linnea continued. "Nikkos was just a boy when he joined your army. He would've been slaughtered in a week if you'd made him a soldier. I don't know why you decided to spare him but since my husband died, he's meant everything to us. He's the only father my daughter has ever known."

"Don't make more of it than it was. I needed a cook and he was an innkeeper's son. That's all there was to it. He was no favorite, just a convenience. Where is he anyway?"

"I don't know. He went out the back way when he saw you this afternoon. He does that sometimes when he's upset. He always comes back though. I couldn't run this place without his help. He's really a wonderful man."

She was going to say more but a group of workmen entered and sat down at a nearby table, anxious for supper. With a quick smile at Gabrielle, she rose and went to work.

It was well after midnight when Xena climbed the stairs to the room that she and Gabrielle were to share that night. She had sat at the back of the room stretching her long legs out before her and had listened as Gabrielle unfolded the tale of Icarus to her eager audience. She was talented, no question about it, but Xena was restless and had heard all the tales before. Perhaps a walk in the cool night air would clear her head and help her to sleep. She'd checked on Argo and had spent the rest of the time walking the streets of the town, delaying the inevitable moment when she would have to lay her head on the pillow and battle the demons that haunted her nights.

Moonlight flooded the room and bathed the features of the sleeping Gabrielle. Silently Xena sat on the edge of the bed and watched her for a moment. Gabrielle's breathing was soft and regular, her face relaxed and unworried. Her head moved on the pillow and a smile turned at the corners of her lips as some dream played out in her mind. The memory of some childhood prank in Poteidaia, Xena imagined, or perhaps a vision of throngs of listeners enraptured by her tales. She looks like a child, the warrior thought, and marveled how one so young could read her so well, how one so gentle could understand and nurture anyone as dark and accursed as herself, and wondered yet again why anyone would.

Her brother Lyceus had. He had possessed that same innocence and generosity. He had looked at Xena with love and admiration, and she had responded with an overwhelming tenderness. After his death, it seemed that she would never give in to that weakness again. But when Nikkos wandered into camp, with the same boyish grin and the youthful eagerness as Lyceus, she had been moved. Another innocent, but maybe one she could save from the slaughter this time. She, the innkeeper's daughter, had given orders and he, the innkeeper's son, was put to work far from the risks of combat. They had barely spoken to one another but she had chosen to give him an opportunity for survival, a chance never afforded her brother.

Xena was convinced that innocence was lost not at a lover's touch as others supposed but at that moment in one's life when one confronts evil for the first time, responds to it and is shaped by it. Lyceus had lost his life then. Gabrielle seemed to grow wiser and stronger with each confrontation. But she and Nikkos were cut from a different cloth. He'd stood in the Gauntlet amidst the anger and violence, had traded his cooking pot for a club and thrown away his chance for peace, just as she had so many years ago when she had first wielded her sword in anger, when she had first taken a human life and exulted in the power.

Xena rose from the bedside, took up the coverlet that lay folded at the foot of the bed and draped it loosely around her shoulders, wincing at the sharp pang that accompanied the move. There was a chair in front of the window and Xena settled in. There would be no sleep for her tonight, this time by choice. She would not surrender to the memories of the Gauntlet that the day's events would surely bring to her slumber. Instead she sat in the moonlight, soothed by the gentle cadence of Gabrielle's breathing, and waited for dawn.

SECTION 3

"I can't eat all this." Gabrielle looked at the sumptuous breakfast that the innkeeper set before her and shook her head in amusement.

Linnea smiled and motioned to the table. "You've earned it. I can't remember when the inn was so crowded. And what with everyone eating and drinking while they listened, I did better last night than in all of last month. You don't know how much I appreciate it."

"Well, it was pretty nice to sleep in a soft, clean bed for a change." Gabrielle looked around the dining room for Xena, wondering if she had spent the night sleeping in the stable after all. She had tried to wait up for the warrior after the storytelling but sleep had overcome her. Her leather pouch, tucked under the pillow, was bursting with dinars and she would have liked to have shared her triumph. "Has Xena eaten?"

"She came down a little after dawn. I was just getting breakfast ready but she just took some bread and a few apples and said that was all she needed. Then she left." Linnea looked sidelong at Gabrielle. "You don't think she's gone after Nikkos, do you? He's not back yet and I'm getting a little concerned."

"Don't worry. It's not vengeance she's after." Gabrielle shook her head and tried to reassure her host. "If she left here with an handful of apples, I'd guess she was thinking more about her horse than Nikkos."

"Well, I hope he realizes that and comes home soon. I need to get more wine and supplies from the next town and Nikkos always takes the wagon and gets them for me. If he doesn't show up soon, I'll have to go myself."

"You can't do that. If Nikkos isn't here, you'll have to get everything ready for tonight. Let us go for you. I don't have anything to do except tell stories later on and I know Xena is restless."

"I can't ask you to do that."

"You didn't ask. I offered. The ride'll give the two of us a chance to talk. We're perfect for the job. I can do the bargaining and just the sight of Xena and her sword will discourage anyone who'd try to hold us up."

Linnea laughed. "Nothing like that ever happens around here."

It was a bright and beautiful day and the gentle sway of the wagon and the sound of the horse's hooves on the path lent an air of peace to their trip. But the errand was not the opportunity for conversation that Gabrielle hoped. Xena had seemed willing, even anxious to go, for there was little for her to do in town. But Gabrielle's attempts to draw her out were fruitless. Xena's replies were infrequent as was often the case with the warrior but they were also distracted and that unsettled Gabrielle perhaps more than anything.

She glanced at her companion, trying to determine how she might ease her mind. So far, the stay at the inn had been profitable. Argo was healing well, they had plenty of dinars for supplies and Linnea was a amiable and grateful host. But Gabrielle would have gladly traded her leather pouch and all its contents for the ability to somehow console her comrade. If anything, Xena seemed worse than before. The usually bronze warrior was pale and those ever-changing blue eyes that were sometimes the only key to Xena's moods were dull and ringed with fatigue. Gabrielle realized with a start that Xena's face was gaunt, as that of one in the throes of an illness.

"Let me take the reins for a while. Why don't you stretch out in the wagon until we get there? You won't get a chance once we load up the supplies."

"I'm fine. Really."

Gabrielle reached over and took the reins from her hands. "You need the rest, Xena. Maybe if you just closed your eyes..."

Xena sat up and put a finger to her lips, suddenly alert. Her eyes narrowed and Gabrielle knew that she had heard or seen something. She gestured for Gabrielle to bring the wagon closer to the roadside and the trees that lined their path. The younger woman felt her heartbeat quicken and reached for the staff that lay in the wagon behind them. She turned her head to look for the weapon and when she returned her gaze to the road ahead, Xena was gone, with only the faint rustle of the leaves above them to mark her departure. Swiftly and noiselessly she had grasped an overhanging branch and swung herself into the treetop, disappearing into the foliage like a forest creature. Although the woods were as silent as before, Gabrielle knew that Xena now moved from branch to branch in pursuit. Whoever had chosen to follow them was now the hunted and if the theft of Linnea's money was their goal, then the element of surprise was no longer working in their favor.

Gabrielle drove the wagon a bit further, listening for some sign of Xena's whereabouts, anxious to lend help if she could. There was a shout off to the left and the familiar and unmistakable sounds of a fight, and Gabrielle grabbed her staff and leapt from the wagon. There were at least ten of them, but already one was on his knees, clutching his midsection where Xena's boot had struck him, leaving him gasping for air. A second lay flat a few feet away, his sword useless in his nerveless hand. While Xena parried with two armed bandits, Gabrielle went for the bandit closest to her. He was a giant of a man, but Gabrielle thrust her staff between his ankles and he tumbled to the ground with a crash. She raised her staff and brought it down on his jaw, and then turned to the next, all in one fluid motion.

Xena dodged the swords of the two men before her, all the while displaying a self assured grin that disconcerted her opponents. Only a crazy woman or one protected by the gods would face certain death with such a smile. Xena parried with the man on her right and whirled as he thrust his sword frantically at her. The sound of her laughter astounded him. It seemed like the teasing of a flirtatious young girl at a village dance and he became furious, anxious to stop her at any cost. She spun on her heel and he lunged once again. This time his blade sank into solid flesh but before he could claim victory, Xena's sword struck and his last sight was of his own comrade impaled on the end of his sword as Xena turned away.

Gabrielle knocked a second man to the ground and turned to look for her comrade. Xena was battling a more accomplished foe this time and there was no laughter as she dodged and weaved, avoiding his blade by mere inches. From the other side of the clearing, Gabrielle looked on helplessly as the first man down struggled to his feet, pulled a long curved blade from its sheath and raised it above his head, poised to strike the warrior woman. She yelled, "Xena, look out!"

But before Xena could turn, another figure ran screaming from the trees, brandishing what looked to be a tree limb. This new combatant swung his awkward weapon with little grace or forethought and he looked like a man possessed. Running wildly, he knocked down Xena's assailant and threatened another with his makeshift staff. The fight was more balanced now and the remaining bandits had lost their advantage. At a signal from the swordsman facing Xena, they backed away from the clearing and fled.

Xena's eyes searched her friend for any signs of injury as she asked, "Are you okay?" At Gabrielle's nod, they both turned to the young man who had joined their ranks. Nikkos sat on the ground, breathing in ragged gasps, his face flushed. His hands shook violently and the tree branch that he held scraped in the dirt with the movement. He looked from one woman to the other but did not seem able to speak.

Gabrielle walked back to the wagon and brought a wine flask from the lunch Linnea had prepared for them. She offered it to him and he drank eagerly. Slowly he seemed to regain his composure but silence hung in the air like a heavy weight.

Finally, Xena spoke, her tone flat and bitter. "Nikkos, it seems like every time I see you, you've got a stick in your hand."

He looked up at her, genuinely frightened. He could think of no response. Surely she would not joke about the Gauntlet and his part in it. More likely she was just taunting him before she would exact vengeance. He threw the branch aside and hung his head. "If you're going to kill me, get it over with."

"If I wanted to kill you, you'd be dead already." She turned away with disdain and climbed back onto the seat of the wagon. "Get in the back. You can help load the supplies for your sister-in-law. That is, unless you've decided to turn your back on her too."

Gabrielle sat beside Xena, and was about to point out that Nikkos had come to their aid when he could have remained safely hidden in the forest. But the set of Xena's jaw and the coldness of her eyes warned her that this was not the time for logic and lectures about forgiveness. Xena's gaze was focused on the road ahead of them but Gabrielle knew that it was a more cruel and painful path that she saw in her mind's eye.

SECTION 4

They rode the rest of the way in silence. Xena sat as if carved in stone, her features hard and sharply chiseled, her expression grim. Nikkos sat in the back on the wagon, tense as a rabbit caught in a trap. He stared at Xena's back as if expecting to see some sign of his fate there. All he could see was her sword in its scabbard and the chakram at her side. Gabrielle, for once, could think of nothing to say.

Finally, they entered the town gates. Xena tossed the pouch of Linnea's coins to Nikkos and cocked her head toward the market before them. "You know what she needs, you know the merchants. We'll meet you back here in an hour. If you feel tempted to take off with that money, think again. I'll find you. And that's a promise. And I won't be as good-natured as I am now."

"I'd never do that to Linnea."

"That's right. I forgot. You're the very paragon of loyalty. Go get her supplies."

Nikkos started to sputter a defense but Xena's voice was little more than a hiss. "Do it." He turned, almost stumbling, and headed towards the stalls.

Xena guided the horse to a water trough and she and Gabrielle sat in the shade of a tree nearby. Gabrielle leaned back, tired from the morning's fight. She watched as Xena scanned the faces of the townspeople and watched for any sign, any movement that signaled trouble. Gabrielle offered her a piece of fruit from her pouch and Xena waved her hand in dismissal, her attention focused on the scene around them. It was noontime in a crowded marketplace and Gabrielle could see nothing out of the ordinary. But nonetheless she felt for her staff as she saw that Xena was at the ready, resting her hand on the chakram at her side.

"You're expecting more trouble, aren't you?"

Xena nodded. "I recognized that last man I fought. His name is Alicar. He's not a bandit. He's a mercenary and he wouldn't bother to attack anyone unless there were a much bigger reward to be gained."

"A bounty hunter? So he was after you." Gabrielle moved closer to Xena, as if to give support by her very presence. "But how did he know where we were? We didn't even know we'd be on that road until half an hour before we left. I never saw him at the inn or around the stable and you hardly went anywhere else."

"Maybe he's been on our trail all along, maybe someone sent him word."

"Nikkos? You think Nikkos did it? But he's terrified of you."

"All the more reason. Look, Gabrielle, I don't know what he did or didn't do but we'd better watch our backs. And if anything happens on the road, get out of there. I'm the one Alicar wants."

"I'm not leaving you." Gabrielle said it as a simple statement of fact, with no bravado, no theatrics.

Xena shook her head slowly. "I mean it, Gabrielle. He won't kill me. I'm worth more if he delivers me alive and Alicar is a businessman, first and foremost. No heroics, no grand gestures of self sacrifice. You just get out of there. You can't help me if you're hurt or dead."

Gabrielle nodded. She could see the wisdom of Xena's words but they would be hard instructions to follow. "Do you know who it is?"

"What?"

"Who put the price on your head. Who sent Alicar?"

"It could've been anyone. It doesn't matter. He's here."

"If you don't know who sent him, how do you know you're worth more alive?"

Xena lips turned in a lop sided grimace and her eyes scanned the crowd once again. "If you fear for your life, you pay to have your enemy killed. I'm not an assassin, so that's unlikely. On the other hand, if what you want is vengeance, then you pay to have your enemy captured instead."

"Why?"

Xena looked at Gabrielle and then looked away quickly. " So you can have the pleasure of watching him die. Or the satisfaction of killing him yourself."

"Oh." Gabrielle sat quietly beside her friend, her imagination frightening her more than the morning's fight. "You know, I'm sorry that I got you into this."

"What are you talking about? That bounty's probably been on my head since long before I met you or Hercules."

"No. I mean, I suggested you take Argo for a ride and you both got hurt. I thought you needed a rest so I talked you into staying at the inn. Then seeing Nikkos made things even worse. And now this relaxing little ride through the woods has put you in danger."

Xena laughed, a rare but musical sound. "Gabrielle, when have we gone a week without being in danger? It's not your doing, it's because of who I am and what I was. We would've met Alicar sooner or later. Let's just get it over with."

Gabrielle patted Xena's knee and turned to get Linnea's pouch from the wagon. "Okay, but first we eat."

"Still making suggestions?"

"Yeah but this time it's to make me feel better."

The ride back to the inn was silent and tense. Xena sat beside Gabrielle, her eyes searching the path ahead of them and the trees that lined the path. Gabrielle kept quiet, knowing that Xena was listening for any sound that might indicate the presence of Alicar and his men. Nikkos sat resting against a sack of grain and tried to stay awake as the wagon swayed back and forth. Soon he was sleeping soundly.

They were less than halfway through their journey when Xena alighted from the wagon to scout on ahead. She led the path before them, her sword in her hand, while Gabrielle rested her staff across the knees on the wagon bench. She strained to hear whatever sound had alerted Xena to trouble and realized that there were no sounds at all. The woods were quiet...too quiet.

Suddenly the path became alive with bodies as Alicar's men, twice as many as before, attacked. Gabrielle swung her staff and knocked one of them to his knees as he tried to clamber onto the wagon. She jumped to the ground but her efforts were made useless as two others, lying in wait in the trees above, threw a length of heavy rope netting over her head and shoulders. Her staff caught in it and two of the men, safe from her blows, pulled it from her hands and threw it to the ground. Someone drew the netting tighter and she struggled as her arms were pinned to her body by the thick ropes.

Frantically, she looked down the path to see Xena surrounded by a dozen men. Several were already down on the ground, but Gabrielle realized that any efforts, even Xena's, would be futile. She watched helplessly as her friend fought on. Once again it was Alicar who faced her and Gabrielle prayed that Xena's prediction was true, that he would spare her life for the larger bounty, that she would have the time and opportunity to turn things around.

But Alicar was carried away by anger and fear and Gabrielle watched in horror as he raised his sword for a blow that would surely sever the warrior in two. But Xena dodged the stroke and his blade struck forcefully on her shoulder armor. It was a blow she might have withstood at another time but now Xena fell to her knees and her sword dropped from her hand to land at Alicar's feet. He kicked it aside and brought the tip of his own to the hollow at the base of Xena's throat . Smiling, he held it there until a thin trickle of blood made its way down to her breasts.

Gabrielle lunged instinctively towards her friend and one of her captors brought his sword hilt down on her head. As she fell to the ground, unconscious, the same man removed the netting and kicked her body to the side of the road,

Xena glared at Alicar, her jaw raised in defiance, even as she knelt at his feet. Alicar signaled two of his men and they wrenched her arms backward to tie her hands with strong, thin cord. Her arm was liquid fire as the pain from her shoulder ran down to her fingers but her face remained frozen in a look of contempt. She had been right . He would not kill her and sacrifice the bounty. She looked at Alicar, trying to assess her captor, hoping to find a weakness she could use to her advantage.

But Alicar's attention was already elsewhere. He smiled as he turned away from his bound prize and removed the sword from her throat. He watched as two of his men accompanied another figure to stand before him. "Well Nikkos, I wondered when I'd see you again."

Xena struggled to rise and Alicar swung his boot to the side of her head. The kick was aimed to subdue her and not to kill, but it was enough to render her unconscious and Xena sank into the blackness.

"A thousand dinars, and all I have to do is hand her over." Alicar watched as Xena was bound to a stake not far from his tent. He smiled at Nikkos. "Easy money. Better than cooking for travelers at that inn of yours. What do you say Nikkos? Travel with me."

"I'm not a fighter. You know that." Nikkos moved to another spot so he would not have to see Xena, bound like a pig for slaughter.

"No, but you know how to deal with merchants and you're good with figures. I need someone I can trust to handle the money, someone to deal with these fools who'll part with a fortune just for revenge. Once word spreads that I've captured the She Devil of Corinth, there'll be more offers than I can handle. You knew I've been hunting her for years. You should have let me know she was here."

"I haven't been at the inn for a couple of days.." He glanced at Xena, thankful that she was still unconscious and unable to see him there. "What's going to happen to her?'

"That's no concern of mine. A slaver in Thrace wants her. Rumor has it she killed his brother in combat, took his war chest, released his slaves and then paraded him naked through the town where he'd captured them all. He'll get his satisfaction and it won't be quick." Alicar slapped him on the shoulder. "Why do you care? You were in her army. Legend has it that Xena would run a man through with hardly a glance if he disobeyed her. She'd send men to their deaths with a smile on her face and never give a damn who lived or died as long as she got what she wanted. She's a ruthless bitch, Nikkos. What does it matter if one warlord executes another? My pockets are full and there's one less killer in the world. Think about it, Nikkos. You'd be a rich man and never a drop of blood on your hands. You could finally marry Linnea and set her up like a queen."

Nikkos rose to leave. He glanced at Xena, now beginning to move slowly as she regained consciousness. More lives than a cat, he thought.

SECTION 5

There was a throbbing behind Gabrielle's eyes and she was blinded by the sunlight when she tried to open them. Nikkos was sitting next to her, pressing a cold wet cloth behind her ear. She closed her eyes once again until the feeling of dizziness passed.

"Xena...where's Xena?"

Nikkos helped her to a sitting position. "She's alive. They're holding her prisoner at the camp. We're lucky. She's the only one they wanted."

Gabrielle put her hand to her head, willing the pain away. "You sent word to Alicar, didn't you? You wanted a share of the bounty so you betrayed her again, you bastard."

Nikkos paled. "I swear by all the gods that I never told Alicar where Xena was. I'll admit I know him. He stays at the inn sometimes but may Zeus strike me dead, I hadn't seen him in months until today."

Gabrielle studied his face and decided that he was telling the truth. Even so, she realized she had nowhere else to turn. "Well, you're going to have to prove it. We've got to get her out of there. Once he hands her over she'll be tortured and killed."

"Are you crazy? There are forty armed men in that camp. They let us go this time but they'll kill us if you try anything. Forget it. She's as good as dead now."

"I won't let her down. Too many people have done that already."

Nikkos stood up and angrily threw the rag into the bushes. "I'm not responsible for Xena's life."

"You were quick enough to try and take it away from her in the Gauntlet. " Gabrielle was angry and frustrated. "You're pathetic. Why Xena even cared to keep you out of harm's way is beyond me."

Nikkos spun on his heel and stared into her eyes. "You don't know anything about it." He seemed to want to say more but changed his mind. "I'm taking the wagon and getting out of here. Are you coming or not?"

"I won't leave Xena."

"Then you're a fool. You'll die."

"Better to die a fool than live a coward. Tell me Nikkos, how precious is life when you spend each day knowing you betrayed someone's trust and that you stood by and watched them suffer? I've going to try to get her out of there with or without your help."

Nikkos saw the look in her face as she rose and picked up her staff from the roadside. There was a determination there that he knew he could not argue away. And for a moment he thought that perhaps she might yet succeed. "Nightfall. Wait until nightfall. We don't stand a chance any other way."

Gabrielle turned her green eyes in his direction and nodded, grateful for his use of the plural. "Nightfall it is."

They moved the wagon away from the road and sat beside one another, waiting.

"I don't understand you, Nikkos. Why did you help us ? Why didn't you just stay hidden in the woods?"

"I didn't know it was Alicar. I just saw that one man ready to stab her in the back. It just didn't seem right. One thing about Xena - she always played fair."

"I don't understand. If you respect her so much, how could you beat her like that?"

"You don't understand how it was."

"We've got all afternoon. Tell me."

Nikkos looked away from her and stared into the forest. After a few minutes he ran his hand through his hair and rubbed his jaw as if trying to make himself presentable. When he spoke his voice was low and Gabrielle thought it seemed like he was afraid someone might overhear his confession. She sat quietly looking into his face as he spoke, reading the play of emotions there.

"Darphus recruited me and a few other boys. He said I'd be a warrior. Everyone would respect me, no one would ever insult me or get in my way again. It sounded pretty good after my brother had taken away my home, my livelihood and my girl. But when Xena saw me standing there with a sword in my hand, she just stared at me for a while. Then she and Darphus started arguing and I could see she wasn't too happy with how young we all were."

"Then all of a sudden she kicked the sword out of my hand, caught it in midair and pointed under my chin. Scared me like Hades itself. She asked me, "What were you doing a week ago, Boy?" And I said, "Working in my father's inn but he's dead now." She gave Darphus a look and told me to report to the cook. I started to beg her to let me be a soldier but she looked me straight in the eye and she said, "You cook or you die."

For the first time Nikkos looked at Gabrielle. "I thought it was a threat. If I didn't follow her orders, she'd kill me. I didn't realize she was giving me a choice." He looked away. "She was trying to save my life and I was too stupid to see it. It didn't take me long to realize it though. All the boys that Darphus got for soldiers were dead within a month."

"What about the Gauntlet?" Gabrielle's voice was as low as his own, if she feared that a loud noise would frighten him from speaking any further.

"Darphus came into the cook tent after me when it was about to start. He'd had to give me over to Xena and now he wanted to rub her nose in it. I never hit her. I was in line with all the others and she stood there and looked at me. I don't think she expected any of us to turn on her like that. But she looked at me like I was the worst of all. You don't know how many nights I've dreamed about her looking at me like that. They started pounding on her and I don't think she knew who hit her and who didn't. I guess it didn't matter. I didn't think anyone could live through a beating like that."

He took a deep breath as if he were about to lift a heavy weight. "The next day Darphus took us on a raid. I had to go. Xena had refused to kill a baby and they put her through the Gauntlet. What would they do to me? They killed everyone. Women, children, little babies. I'd never seen anything like it. There was blood everywhere. And the screams.... All I wanted was to get out of there alive. I hit one boy with my sword and I saw him fall. I think I killed him. I'm not sure. Someone knocked me on the head and I fell down. Then someone fell on top of me and I just lay there. I could hear him dying, I could feel him die, right on top of me. But I just lay there, praying to the gods that it would be over and that no one would see that I was still alive. I stayed there till nightfall , under a corpse, until I was sure they had all gone. Then I just wandered around for a year doing whatever jobs I could until I gave up and came home."

He cleared his throat and continued. "My brother was dead from a fever and Linnea had just had the baby. She was afraid she was going to lose the inn and asked me to stay, so I said yes. I wanted to start over, you know? But I can't sleep nights. I have dreams, awful dreams . Sometimes I see Xena in the Gauntlet and she reaches out her hand for me to help her but I can't and so I turn away. Sometimes I dream about trying to get out from under that dead man but he just gets heavier and heavier. And then when I turn him over, it's the boy I killed. Or Xena."

"Why did you run when you saw her at the inn? Did you think she'd come after you?" Gabrielle felt rather than saw him nod.

"You didn't see her in the Gauntlet. You didn't see her lying in the dirt like that. Her body was smashed and bleeding but when she stood up with that anger and hatred in her eyes, there wasn't a man there who wasn't afraid."

Gabrielle was silent for a moment. "Well Nikkos, I don't know how Xena feels. She's never spoken to me about the Gauntlet. But I do know one thing. If you expect vengeance, or if you're waiting for her to punish you, it's not going to happen. Xena has her own demons to fight and you're doing a pretty good job of punishing yourself. Maybe you'd be better off trying to make amends. Come on. Help me figure out a way to get her out of there. Maybe then you two can work things out."

SECTION 6

"You think that'll be enough?" Gabrielle turned around to look for Nikkos who was kneeling a few feet away.

"It's plenty." Nikkos stood and held a bunch of dark green leaves in his hand for her inspection. "I may be a failure as a warrior but I'm a damned good cook. I know what's good for you to eat and I know what's bad for you to eat." He smiled and for the first time Gabrielle saw the boyishness that had caught Xena's eye not so long ago. "A handful of this in the stew and we'll have an advantage. It won't kill anyone but they won't be too eager to chase after us either."

"You're sure you can get to them?" Gabrielle asked anxiously. Xena was worth more alive than dead but that was a slim guarantee of her safety.

"Alicar's cook stays at the inn too. Even a cook likes to be waited on once in a while. And this will help." Nikkos pulled a flask of wine from the supplies they had bought that morning. "You just see about cutting Xena loose."

It was dusk when they approached Alicar's camp. Gabrielle hid in the bushes while Nikkos headed for the cook tent. There was a huge pot of stew bubbling over the fire and Gabrielle watched as Nikkos greeted the man who sat beside it. He offered the flask of wine and settled down next to the pot. From the cook's enthusiastic welcome, she felt it would be only a matter of time before Nikkos could safely drop the crushed green leaves into the meal.

From her hiding place, she could see Xena tied to a stake at the edge of the clearing. She had her head thrown back as if asleep but Gabrielle knew that Xena was alert to every sight and sound in the camp. Quietly she inched her way closer to the warrior, confident that her presence was already known. From the bushes nearest the clearing she finally dared to whisper.

"Xena, can you hear me?"

The warrior's bent her head to her chest, as if the weight of it was suddenly too much to bear.

"Where are your weapons?'

Xena turned her head slightly in the direction Alicar's tent.

"Anybody home?"

Xena stretched her neck as if in stiffness and nodded once.

"Just hold tight. We'll be back at the inn before you know it." Gabrielle gave a reassuring smile although she knew Xena could not see it. At least she was still alive and unhurt. And once Xena was free and armed with sword and chakram, Gabrielle's boast could yet become truth.

It wasn't long before the men began to line up for supper and Alicar himself emerged from his tent, Nikkos was gone and if the cook seemed in better spirits than usual, it raised no comment. They all ate eagerly and Gabrielle waited, hoping Nikkos' plan would work. When she saw Alicar serve himself, she quietly slipped into the back of his tent and searched for Xena's sword and chakram. They were in plain sight and within minutes Gabrielle had hidden them in the bush beside her.

It was dark now and the men clustered in small groups around the campfires. Some played dice, some polished their armor and sharpened their swords. Gabrielle watched as one by one, they rose to venture into the woods, Nikkos' green leaves having their effect. They came back cursing, their tunics and leggings awry. Some were pale , wiping their mouths with the backs of their hands. Others soon lay on their bedrolls, all thoughts of a second helping banished from their minds. Many, fatigued from subsequent trips to the woods, slept by the fire.

When she saw the guard closest to her suddenly dash into the woods, Gabrielle crawled on her stomach to Xena's side. With one swift sure stroke she cut the line that bound her hands and then the other around her ankles. Xena was silent but nodded her thanks and Gabrielle could see the flash of her smile in the moonlight as she flexed her fingers and reached for her sword.

Gabrielle ran back through the trees and was close to the wagon when she realized that Xena was not behind her. Catching sight of Nikkos she signaled him to follow her as she turned back. And within moments she stopped, transfixed by the scene in front of her.

Xena and Alicar stood a few feet apart, ready to do battle once again. Alicar was pale and Gabrielle guessed that the stew had done its job with him too. But he was angry and determined that this was the last complication he would have to deal with.

"Half a bounty is better than none, Xena." He waved his sword. "I'm beginning to understand why people are willing to pay to see you dead. That Thracian slave trader is going to be disappointed when I throw your damned carcass at his feet. He had such wonderful plans for you. You would have prayed for death after the first day or so. But now it'll be worth a few dinars to kill you myself. Maybe you should thank me. At least this way it'll be quick."

"Quicker than you think," Xena said. She held her sword before her and parried his blows. She dodged when he lunged and whirled from one spot to another. She had not struck a blow herself and Gabrielle wondered why. She could see no blood on Xena's leathers and knew she had not been cut. She watched Xena's movements carefully as the warrior circled her opponent and then she understood what the last few days had cost her. Xena moved with less force and grace than usual, her upper body almost rigid. Gabrielle realized that Xena's shoulders and arms were bruised and tired and that Xena was saving her strength and might for the crushing blow that would end her fight with Alicar and probably his life.

But then the unthinkable happened. They crossed swords and Xena's fell from her hand. Gabrielle held her breath as her hands tightened around her staff and she was about to jump between the two combatants when Nikkos emerged from the bushes close to them. In one quick movement he swept up Xena's sword in his hand and stood there, a reluctant warrior.

Everyone seemed to move in slow motion at the change in events. Then Alicar laughed, confident of success. "Go ahead, Nikkos. Give the bitch what she deserves."

And then Nikkos threw the sword to Xena. It flew through the air and Xena's movements were so sure and so smooth that it seemed as if the sword itself decided to change direction in mid-flight. Alicar swayed back and forth for a moment as the sword sank into his chest. His eyes widened in surprise as he saw the glint of the metal in the moonlight and then he fell backward, a threat to no one.

Xena was checking Argo's foreleg when Nikkos entered the stable. He stood before the stall and watched as Argo nuzzled Xena in welcome.

"Linnea said I'd find you here. I wanted to talk to you and there's just too many people at the inn."

"Gabrielle has quite a following." Xena stroked Argo's neck. "She deserves it. She's a good storyteller. Wise beyond her years."

"While some of us take a little longer to understand things. You spared my life and I paid you back by standing with Darphus. Xena, I'm sorry for what happened. Sometimes I dream about the Gauntlet. There are nights I'm afraid to go to sleep."

There was a pause and when Xena spoke her voice was lower, softer. "You threw me that sword today, Nikkos. Forget the Gauntlet."

"I can't forget it. I'll carry that shame to my grave."

Xena laughed bitterly. "Don't talk to me about shame, Nikkos. There are so many deaths on my hands and so much misery."

"I betrayed you. We all did."

"Maybe it had to be that way. Maybe there had to be nowhere left for me to go but in a new direction."

"I don't understand." Nikkos' face was golden in the lamplight and Xena thought once again how much he reminded her of Lyceus.

She turned to face him. "No one ever survived the Gauntlet. It was a death sentence. Darphus knew it, I knew it. Every man in that line knew it. But I made it through. And for a long time I wondered why." She began to brush Argo but then Nikkos put his hand on hers, took the brush from her and picked up where she had left off.

"And why did you?"

"Because some of the men never hit me at all. I was almost halfway down the line before I felt the first blow. Well past you."

Nikkos felt the warmth of her hand on his arm but it was gone before he could dare to turn and look into her eyes.

"I wasn't meant to die, not then, not there. For some reason, I got a second chance. I know I can't undo anything. I can't bring back the dead but now I have the rest of my life to try to pay back some of my debts. Every time I do something right, something good, it brings a little more order into my life. Things make a little more sense."

"But you're a hero now."

"Not to those whose lives I've ruined."

"But there was good in you even then, Xena. Not like Dar..." He turned to face her, anxious to comfort her troubled mind.

But she was already gone and he found himself alone.

EPILOGUE

When Gabrielle returned to the room late that night, she found Xena sitting at the foot of the bed before the window. She had just bathed and her dark hair clung to her shoulders, gleaming in the lamplight. She was polishing her armor and the light caught the metal and reflected her image like precious stones set in the dark leather.

Gabrielle stood at the door and watched her as she had a hundred times before. Perhaps long ago the armor had been mere battle gear but now it was part of the warrior herself. Like a second skin, it protected her and warded off the blows of those who wished her harm. Yet at the same time, it defined who she was and what she had been and it marked her as the target of those who struck in vengeance or hatred. Armor defined the cycle of a warrior's life and would until the day someone younger, stronger or more reckless and daring would end it and begin his own cycle of violence.

Gabrielle realized full well that Xena knew and accepted this. She felt her throat tighten as she watched Xena work. The armor she polished could never protect her from the hurt within and surely the weight of it only added to her pain. But perhaps it would not be so forever. Everyone who had met Xena in the past few years knew her not as a vicious warlord but as their champion and a blessing from the gods. The power of Xena's deeds and, hopefully, the reach of her own stories might one day make Xena's path less fearsome and threatening.

But for now, Gabrielle could only try to ease her friend's way. She waited until Xena was finished and then reached for her pouch. "I've brought something for you."

Xena raised an eyebrow. It always amused her when Gabrielle used that tone. She sounded like a mother who had playfully hidden a sweet in her tunic pocket for a favored child.

"I got it from across the street."

"From the stable?"

Gabrielle held up a vial of horse liniment and grinned. "I told the stableman it was for you, so we toned it down a little. He wouldn't take a single dinar for it either. He said you can always judge people by how they treat their horses and he likes you very much. Come on, give it a try. It might help."

"You're serious about this?"

"Yeah, I am. Just humor me."

Xena was about to shrug her shoulders and thought better about it. "All right. But if I ever break my leg, don't go across the street for advice." She lay face down on the bed, pushing the straps of her shift over her shoulders and down to her arms.

Gabrielle sat down beside her, grateful that Xena could not see her face. Xena's shoulder was badly bruised, worse than she had expected and she suddenly felt reluctant to touch it at all. Too late to back out now, though. "He said it might sting a little at first." Xena made no sound nor did she move when the lotion was applied to her shoulder but Gabrielle felt the muscle beneath her fingers clench like a fist. "I'm sorry. Maybe we didn't tone it down enough..." She pulled her hand away and felt remorse that she had caused her more pain.

"It's all right." Xena's voice was muffled by the pillow but Gabrielle heard her as she said softly, "I'll be okay." With a quiet smile, she nodded in agreement. I'll take that as a promise, she thought.

Slowly, gently, Gabrielle rubbed the stiffness from Xena's shoulder. For the first time in days, Xena closed her eyes and rested her head on the pillow. Now that the initial sting was past, the liniment seemed to be working, spreading warmth where there had been pain, comfort where there had been unease. Gabrielle began to chatter, her voice as soft and as low as it had been at the campsite. As her fingers softly kneaded Xena's shoulders and neck, she talked of her latest tale, of the audience that had rewarded her so well, of Linnea and Nikkos, of Argo's leg. She knew it was the music of her voice that mattered, not the lyrics of her song.

And then she was through. She rose from the bedside and pulled the coverlet up over her friend. Although the hour was late, she still had much to do. Settling in the chair, she reached for her pen and parchment and began to write while, quietly and peacefully, Xena slept.




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